Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Illegal Alien" by Genesis (1984)



We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Phil Collins has nothing to say. I’m sure he’ll tell you that himself. I don’t believe at all that artists must be tortured to make great art, but it’s very difficult to make your art have meaning if you’re a happy-go-lucky guy. Ask Paul McCartney. Or Mike Love. At least they had ‘darker’ partners who could balance their essentially meaningless cheeriness. After Peter Gabriel, who was going to provide that valuable service for Phil? The guy from Mike and the Mechanics?

Phil is not talentless. On this very album, the dark and moody “Mama” is a minor masterpiece of storytelling. The problem is that he gives too little consideration to taste.

Case in point, this: one of the most insulting and offensive songs ever written. Genesis claims that it’s meant to be an ironic parody, but I can’t see that at all.

What I see is a bunch of wealthy white English men taking the real and tragic plight of immigrants and turning it into a clown-show worse than Pat Boone’s “Speedy Gonzales”.

Phil Collins sings the whole song in a stereotypical ‘Mexican’ accent. The lyrics make your toes curl, filled with all nature of innuendo about immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular. The song’s middle-eight suddenly transforms into a mock-‘ethnic’ jangle, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” only, if this were possible, worse.

The video features Phil and the other two looking as ‘greasy’ as possible engaged in the escapades depicted in the lyrics, a performance that makes Peter Sellers’s Indian characters the very model of respectful depiction.

And, on top of all of this racist, xenophobic garbage, the song itself is crap too: built on a cheesy keyboard riff and with the least natural verse-to-chorus transitions. The chorus reduces a complex international political issue to the sentence “it’s no fun being an illegal alien” chanted over and over again.

“Fun” and “alien” don’t rhyme, you say? Ah, but you miss the power of Phil’s crap Speedy Gonzales accent. The song features a ‘breakdown’ near the end with dozens of people singing and clapping this line while Phil does ridiculous soul-boy-cum-minstrel show ‘vocalisations’. Then that damned synth line comes in. And an entire nation hangs its head in shame.

Not only is it a shame that Genesis saw fit to record this and release it, but their record company even decided to release it as a single. Why? Did they not care who they might be insulted by this? Was their desire to make a racist joke so strong that they felt they needed to do it at all costs?

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